Queen Latifah made her first big splash onto the music scene at age 19, with the release of her hit rap single "Ladies First." For the next three decades, the Newark, New Jersey, native went on to build a multifaceted and dynamic career as a musician, actress, producer, and philanthropist, blazing a trail for other black female artists.
I recently sat down with Queen during her press tour for The Queen Collective, her latest endeavor which provides opportunities for women of color in film to tell stories from their viewpoint. The mentoring and development program, in collaboration with Tribeca Studios and Procter & Gamble, selected two winners this year and their projects will premiere on BET Networks, Saturday, June 13 at 9 p.m. ET.
She shared some of the financial lessons experienced while growing up and building her business, as well as her ideas on how we can promote more equality in the workplace and close the racial wealth gap. Below are some highlights from our conversation, which you can also listen to on my podcast.
My first job was at Burger King flipping burgers at 15 years old. I made minimum wage, but I was excited to see that first check. My first check was for, like, $87 and some change, and it meant that I got to spend some money. But also give my mom some money, contribute to the household.
My second job was at a record store called The Wiz and I was selling my own record. My first single came out and people would come in the store and ask for my record and it was like, "You know, that's me, right?" and they're like, "Huh?"
As a young female rapper traveling the world and seeing how we were portrayed around the world … I felt like I always had to explain to reporters from different countries what our experience is like. I had to make sure that was me … a young, articulate woman from Newark, New Jersey, who was intelligent and had no problem explaining my position.
But it felt like I had to speak for everyone because the media had us looking crazy around the world.
Video by Jason Armesto
I started college at Borough of Manhattan Community College and then I left school because my records were starting to play on the radio and I was getting show offers. I needed to really focus my attention on my rap career, and I said, "I'm going to put everything I have into it."
I had a conversation with my mom. I said, "Mom, I might want to take a year off from college and I'm going to put 100% into this career, this rap thing. If it doesn't work, I promise you I'll go back to school."
It was not as tough a conversation because my mother knew me. My mother knows her kids and she watched this developing in me. She introduced me to the DJ who would become my producer, as a matter of fact. I think my mother was just in touch with the pulse of the youth and what was going on and she encouraged and supported the youth. She got what was happening.
So I took that year off and I never looked back. My mother was there every step of the way.
We were learning on the job. We had some mentors around the business who helped us out with a lot of things. But I had to fire my first accountant. I went to meet with them and there was no money in the bank. All these checks had been written out to this and that, and they were signing these things and I had no money.
So, needless to say, I fired that guy and that company, and it took a minute to find the right person. I found a great accountant, an honest person who just had some character and smarts, and we've been together for years.
I've taken bumps and bruises through the years trying to manage things, and learning I had to sign all my own checks and not leave things in other people's hands. You just have to pay attention to it: Fire fast and hire faster. Find somebody with some character and hold on to them.
My wealth is emotional wealth and family wealth. It is important to me. Financial wealth then springs from that.
I feel like some of the greed that we see and the reason we can't spread the wealth out a bit is because there's no "enough." There's no goal. The goal is to keep making money and making money, but that's like a hamster on a wheel. There has to be some end game that you say, "OK. What do I need to make sure my family is good? To make sure I'm good, that my community is good?"
But if you just like working to work, I'm not with that. I'm only speaking for myself, but I don't want to work just to work. I want my work to be worth it … because I'm putting my life's energy into this and I want the time that I spend away from my family and my friends to be worth it.
I want to be doing a job that fulfills me, makes me feel happy. That even when the hours are long and I'm exhausted, I leave there like, "Yeah, that was a good day's work."
Being a person who's gotten to the point in her career where she could decide who was hired and not, I made sure that anyone producing a film for me actively sought a diverse group of people. Otherwise the same people would have been hired again and again and I would have looked out past that camera and seen a bunch of people who did not look like the America I know.
For me, from the moment I made the record "Ladies First," it wasn't about telling guys, "I don't like the way you're talking to me," which was true. But I said, "If we're standing next to each other, they have no choice but to treat us the way we're supposed to be treated. We're stronger in numbers when we stand up for ourselves and when we connect with each other. The system is going to have to change at some point."
I think it's important for young people to receive an education about how finance works. I remember my bank book and my mom opening a savings account for my brother and I as kids. We got to put a little bit in that bank book and look at what was in our savings account. Then you grow up and you realize, "Wait, that's not the account that we should have had this money in. We should have had it in a different account that was earning interest."
We should have maybe been investing, but we didn't know.
So I think financial literacy is really important for creating black wealth. I think for us to understand the power of our dollar and to make sure companies respect our spending and respect our dollar and reinvest in us is very important as well, because that way the money keeps going around.
Farnoosh Torabi is a financial expert, bestselling author, and host of the Webby-nominated financial podcast "So Money," a thrice-weekly show that features conversations with leading authors, entrepreneurs, and entertainers about their personal finances.
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